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A Busy Week in the Life of a Young Lefty

On Friday the Toronto Blue Jays made Jon Niese into their personal pinata, whacking him all over the ballpark [1]. It was the worst start of his young career, a game that ended with Rob Johnson on the mound and doing a lot better than the guy he’d started the game catching.

Today, Niese handcuffed the Pittsburgh Pirates rather convincingly, using his cutter and change to great effect, as the Mets just got enough offense and left PNC Park with a 2-1 series win. (And a 19-19 all-time record in the beautiful stadium where horrible things happen [2], believe it or not.)

What happened in between? A lot of stuff, much of it fascinating — and invisible to us except through secondhand accounts.

After the Toronto debacle, Dan Warthen got excellent distance in heaving Niese under the speeding wheels of a very heavy bus, saying he needed to study more, particularly against teams he hadn’t faced before. It was a pretty damning critique, particularly of a guy who’d just had his free-agent years bought out by a cash-strapped team.

Then, as Adam Rubin reports [3] over at ESPN New York, Niese was summoned to a pitching skull session that included Niese, Warthen, bullpen coach Ricky Bones, Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey. It sounds like it was a Come to Jesus moment for Niese, courtesy of some apostles of pitching, and oh what I wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall for that congregation. Niese, one presumes, listened — at least for one start. This was Warthen afterwards, demonstrating his bus-throwing muscles are still in fine shape should he have to use them again: “Sometimes [Niese] trusts his stuff more than realizing that he has to pitch. Today I thought he pitched as well as using stuff.”

Johnson, back in as Niese’s catcher, also helped out by keeping it simple. During today’s pregame bullpen session, he saw that Niese’s cutter and two-seam fastball were particularly good and he was locating them very well. So he leaned hard on those pitches, with Plan B waiting until the Pirates showed they could hit them. They never did [4].

I have no inclination for advanced stats, unfortunately — but I’m fascinated by them, convinced that they have a lot to teach us about the game we love to watch, whether it’s by confirming hunches, illuminating murky events or exposing biases. It makes me crazy when smart broadcasters who love baseball reject advanced stats haughtily (I’m looking at you, Howie Rose), and merely disappointed when smart fans who love baseball dismiss them cavalierly.

You can’t discuss Ike Davis’s troubles without understanding that his BABIP this year is ridiculously low, or prepare yourself for what’s to come with David Wright without understanding that his BABIP is ridiculously high. And if you rolled your eyes because BABIP sounds funny, c’mon. You’re better than that. Keith Hernandez talking about rib-eye steaks sounds goofy too. FIP and K/BB can tell us interesting things about pitchers and their defense (or lack thereof), and those metrics undoubtedly informed the Mets’ decision to extend Niese. Fielding remains the area where advanced stats are still searching in the dark, experimenting with different models — but even here, the research is no longer theoretical. Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays are employing defensive shifts with regularity, practices that get Maddon called a mad scientist today (sometimes on SNY, unfortunately) but will be common among the smart teams in five years and reach the dumb teams in 10. It’s all fascinating to me — as is anything that helps me understand baseball better.

But advanced stats aren’t everything, and they aren’t the only lens through which baseball can be illuminated. This isn’t a counter-case to the above — the only people I’ve heard make such universalist claims are old-school traditionalists bashing away at straw men. But it is a useful reminder. I can’t quantify the effect of Niese getting hauled into a room for schooling by Santana and Dickey, but I’m pretty sure it made a difference. I have no numbers to pinpoint Niese’s effort doing prep work in Toronto vs. his effort in Pittsburgh, but the latter sure seems to have been larger than the former. And was Niese’s performance on the field different because of those things? I’m quite confident it was, even though I can’t measure it. Advanced stats teach us that the pitcher can do little or nothing to influence what happens to the ball after it’s hit, which is useful to know. But it’s also useful to better understand what the pitcher did — or didn’t do — before that point. And in the case of today’s game, that process seems to have begun over the weekend, in another country.

Intangible and unquantifiable things are important — but they’re also a catch-all category for a lot of lazy thinking and myth-peddling. I don’t know what the hell “Derek Jeter knows how to win” means, or what “Alex Cora/Jeff Francoeur/Mr. Met is a great clubhouse guy” has to do with anything. For that stuff, well, WFAN awaits. But if you’re going to tell me that Niese was effectively locked in a room with Santana to learn how to size up batters during a game, I’ll listen. If you’re going to tell me what Johnson saw through the bars of his mask and how that shaped the game he called, I’m all ears. Those are intangibles and unquantifiables worth discovering and discussing — and in this case, celebrating.